reflections

Geopolitical Diary: Middle East Peace and the Persian Rug

4 MINS READJul 10, 2008 | 01:56 GMT
Iran kicked off a second day of military exercises on Wednesday with a test of its medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile, which it said is capable of reaching Israel. After the Israelis made a big show in early June with a military exercise over the Mediterranean Sea that simulated long-range airstrikes on Iran, it was only a matter of time before Iran whipped out the Shahabs in response. Meanwhile, a story popped up July 8 in Israeli daily Haaretz that claimed senior Saudi officials had quietly told their Israeli counterparts that Riyadh would not mind seeing Israel strike Iran. The article then quickly disappeared from the Haaretz Web site. When we called Haaretz to inquire, we were mysteriously told the story was "censored and pulled." You can only tell so much from such a brief comment, but it certainly fits with an ongoing and complex psywar campaign against Iran. If angry rhetoric, missile tests and war games were all we had to go on, then it would seem pretty obvious that the Middle East was gearing up for the ultimate showdown. But there's still more to the story. While all the war frenzy has been going on, the United States made an offer to open a U.S. diplomatic office in Tehran. Iran restarted fresh negotiations with the West over its nuclear program. The second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq announced that the number of Iranian-sponsored attacks in Iraq had dropped in recent weeks, falling in line with a steady decline in violence over the past year. A senior U.S. State Department official told Congress that Iran had not yet perfected uranium enrichment and that, at the highest levels, the United States remains committed to dealing diplomatically with Iran. Believe it or not, taken together, all these events — from the missile tests to the nuclear negotiations — spell progress. We don't wish to get overly excited, but with Israeli-Syrian peace talks progressing nicely and the United States and Iran inching closer and closer to some sort of accommodation, the Middle East appears to be tidying itself up at a healthy pace. It may be difficult to see progress in this fog of war, and we certainly have our fair share of reader responses telling us we are crazy for thinking that Iran is looking to negotiate when it's popping off missiles and calling for Israel's destruction. But this is all part and parcel of the negotiating game. Imagine yourself buying a rug in a bazaar in the middle of Tehran. After about 20 minutes of haggling in the sweltering heat with the shop owner, you state your final price — a lot less than his initial asking price, but a bit more than the first bid you threw out. The shop owner shakes his head, laments about how he needs to feed his family and chastises you for naming such an impossible price. You turn around and start walking out, signaling that the sale is lost — there is no more use in negotiating. But just before you reach the doorway, he calls for you to come back. A price is agreed on, and you leave with a prize in hand. The U.S.-Iranian negotiations have transpired in a similar manner, albeit on a much larger scale. Instead of a Persian rug, the prize in question — Iraq — is equally complex in nature, with issue upon issue to sort out: How can Iraqi Sunnis and their regional Arab sponsors find a balance in a Shiite-majority government? How can the Iranians ensure the Iraqi military doesn't evolve into an offensive force capable of wreaking havoc in Iran's oil-rich southwest? How can the United States assure Israel that Iran's nuclear ambitions will be capped through a deal on Iraq? These are not easy questions to resolve. As such, the negotiations have been noisy, erratic and deadly at certain points during the past five years. But just when a deal is close to being reached, it will appear that the rug has been pulled out from under Washington or Tehran, war is imminent and both sides are ready to walk away from the table without a deal. That may be where we are right now.

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